One hardly needs comic book fantasy or Marvel film fiction to imagine what a late-capitalist America might look like under the spell of a self-obsessed madman and his loyal minions.
But Season 2 of “The Boys” couldn't have touched down at a better time. The Amazon Prime series, which returns Friday, is a sharp, entertaining, eviscerating satire of superhero franchises and the culture that aggrandizes them.
The dark comedy expertly skewers social ills in real time, playing with themes of capitalist glut, celebrity worship and corporate greed within a narrative that pokes fun at the gross commoditization of comic book culture. As with Season 1, new episodes mine unsettling corners of reality with crude humor, wonderfully flawed characters and smart, timely themes, taking aim at everything from white supremacist idiots to cancel culture’s self-appointed woke police. And society's plagues are a lot easier to laugh at inside “The Boys'” far-fetched universe of rogue superbeings and avenging vigilantes than outside, in our own.
Think of “The Boys” as a superhero takedown for those who loathe the genre — not to mention an alternative for those who love “Black Panther” or “Guardians of the Galaxy” but need a sardonic, foul-mouthed interpretation of heroism that speaks directly to our times. Sorry, Captain America.
The “supes” (or superheroes) in this series are worshipped by the public, but behind the gleaming smiles and flowing capes are emotionally unstable egomaniacs with crooked morals, drug addictions and deadly mommy issues.
Known as The Seven, the indestructible team of “All American” crime fighters who look curiously like Justice League knockoffs are led by a chiseled sadist known as Homelander (Antony Starr). His team includes the high-wattage Starlight (Erin Moriarty), the superfast A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) and the disillusioned warrior Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott).
They are hardly autonomous, though. Their crime-stopping campaigns are choreographed, marketed and monetized by corporate giant Vought International and its unnervingly calm CEO, Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito). But malfeasance and sloppy mistakes threaten the squeaky-clean image of the franchise, as do the diabolical actions of new Seven recruit Stormfront (Aya Cash). The formidable newcomer has a dangerous agenda and decades of experience to draw from. More importantly, she's a master manipulator with a massive social media following. Her powers include stoking white nationalism, Nazi ideals and fear of immigrants. (Sound familiar?) Chaos — controlled and otherwise — ensues, making Season 2 an explosive, hilarious, whale-gut-soaked affair.
Crude British assassin Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and his ragtag team of vigilantes are still on a mission to expose and destroy The Seven, who are all “wankers” as far as the Butcher’s concerned. But his crew has gone into hiding after making the FBI’s Most Wanted list and landing in Vought’s crosshairs. OCD family man Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), the feral Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), quirky Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and milquetoast Hughie (Jack Quaid) have hit rock bottom while taking shelter in the grimy basement of an illicit drug runner.
But that all changes when a new, damning development provides fresh ammo against the supes. Their drug of choice, Compound V, plays a much bigger role than anyone thought. No spoilers here, but prepare for some of the best fight scenes to take place in a maternity ward — and then a psych ward.
Developed for television by Eric Kripke ("Supernatural," "Timeless"), “The Boys” is based on the comic book of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. If Season 1 was great, Season 2 is even better, thanks to the expansion of the main characters' back stories — which in turn throws the good-versus-evil, perfect folks-versus-regular slobs plot into even sharper relief. New twists and members of the ensemble are added judiciously, which is probably a strange word for a show that's so wonderfully reckless. But no matter how irreverent — its characters are debauched, morally compromised and crass — "The Boys" successfully walks a fine line between taking the piss and pissing people off.
For example, the #MeToo movement is symbolized in Starlight’s sexual harassment and coercion by another member of The Seven, slimy supe The Deep (Chace Crawford). Vought ultimately twists her painful story into a money-making, women-finding-their-voice campaign — “Girls Get It Done!” (or something like that). It’s cynical, funny and horrible at the same time, as are all the disturbing, timely parables the series contains about racism, intolerance and hate-stoking.
We shouldn’t laugh, but, God, do we need to. “The Boys” walks a perilously thin line between lampooning what’s wrong with America and embracing it for entertainment value — something those of us in the real world know a thing or two about. Pulling dark humor out of that caustic cauldron is not just a skill, it’s a warped superpower. Even the most super-skeptic of viewers can agree about that.